Great White Shark Unama'ki Heading Into the Open Ocean May Be Sign 2,000lb Predator Is Pregnant

A 2,000-pound great white shark called Unama'ki appears to be heading away from the coastal waters of the United States and moving into the open ocean.

The shark was tagged with a monitoring device by marine research non-profit OCEARCH in September last year, and tracking data shows that the 15 foot, five-inch-long female is swimming eastwards. It is currently not clear why, but OCEARCH speculates that one of the reasons could be that the animal is pregnant.

"Very interesting! Take a look at @UnamakiShark's track. She is veering off into the open ocean. Could she be going out there to gestate? We've only really tracked large females making these pelagic journeys. We'll be watching her closely," OCEARCH wrote in a tweet.

This is not the first great white shark OCEARCH has tracked that has made a similar journey. But as a mature female, the course Unama'ki charts will be extremely valuable to researchers, the non-profit said. This is partly because she has the potential to lead scientists to a site where she may give birth, revealing a new great white shark nursery.

"A pelagic journey is one out into the open ocean, far away from the coast. This is not necessarily a surprising observation because we have seen it before from several other mature female white sharks. It is interesting though because it is primarily a journey we see large mature females make," OCEARCH Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader Chris Fischer told Newsweek.

"One of our hypotheses for this is that they are gestating. A previous shark we tracked making one of these journeys into the open ocean, named Mary Lee, returned to shore near Long Island, which is a white shark nursery. If Unama'ki makes a long journey out in the open ocean, she could lead us to a new nursery when she returns to the coast if she is gestating. We will be watching her closely," he said.

Since being tagged in the waters off Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, Unama'ki has travelled more than 5,000 miles, moving southwards into the Gulf of Mexico, before leaving the region and heading towards the open ocean. Parts of this long journey have been particularly intriguing for the OCEARCH team.

Very interesting! Take a look at @UnamakiShark’s track. She is veering off into the open ocean. Could she be going out there to gestate? We’ve only really tracked large females making these pelagic journeys. We’ll be watching her closely.

— OCEARCH (@OCEARCH) April 21, 2020

For example, toward the end of January, Unama'ki's tracker pinged in the far northeast of the Gulf of Mexico, an area where OCEARCH does not normally see these animals. And in October, soon after being tagged, the shark pinged in the Gulf, which is surprisingly early in the year for great whites to be entering these waters.

"She also spent a long time in the Gulf of Mexico compared to other sharks we've tracked," Fischer said.

OCEARCH has been tagging sharks all over the world for more than a decade, and Unama'ki, which means "land of the fog" in the language of the Miꞌkmaq First Nations people, in reference to the area of Cape Breton, is the second largest that the non-profit has ever caught and tagged in the northwest Atlantic region.

When the team aboard the OCEARCH research vessel catch a shark, they tag the animal with a monitoring device while also carrying out a host of other tests before releasing them back into the water. The data collected from the trackers and these tests can provide new insights into the behavior of these animals.

Unama’ki, OCEARCH
The great white shark known as Unama’ki. OCEARCH/R. Snow

"I hope you take some time today to reflect on how important the Earth is to us,"
OCEARCH Expedition Leader, Chris Fischer, said in a special video message created in celebration of Earth Day. "Our work at OCEARCH is really connected to the topic this year of climate change. All of the white shark tracks we're laying down, and defining the range and movement of these sharks, are the baseline of data for their range. So we will be able to understand in the future if climate change does push their migration a bit more north."

"Also we'll be able to understand from the general health assessment of the sharks, and what the profile of their blood is and the toxins in their system, the amount of microplastics in their system, we are setting down the baseline for those sorts of things so they can be measured in the future to see if climate is impacting those things," he said.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Chris Fischer.